My whole life I have yearned for epic space battles. And no, Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game are not enough to slake my thirst. Many years back when I got hold of the Honor Harrington series, I was done for. I couldn’t stop reading them! After a while I burned out. Honor was great, sure. But she sort of lived one adventure too long. The number of subplots and spinoffs became so great, I stopped caring after a while. And I could never put my finger why exactly, but I found myself drifting away from “real” science fiction altogether right about then. I just couldn’t get into it anymore, opting instead to dig up a lot of the lost classics of pulp fantasy.
I have to say, though, that Starship Liberator managed to bring me back into the fold in just a handful of chapters. All the great tech from all the great space games are there, sure. There are Mechwarriors ™ asking each other “do you wanna live forever?!” There are sandcasters from Traveller. There are heavy tanks, missile tanks, and G.E.V.s from Ogre. There are useless militia units from Steve Jackson’s Battlesuit microgame. There are dropships from BattleTech. There are Fast Battlecruisers from Space Empires: Close Encounters. Every piece of hardware from every space battle that ever blew your mind is here and every aspect of how these elements coordinate both strategically and tactically is explained in an entertaining way while the action unfolds.
That sort of thing is flawlessly executed and that’s an impressive achievement in and of itself. But that is not where the authors close the deal. No, the reason I can’t set this down when I have such a healthy pile of great books in my “to read” pile is because these guys get the one thing right that matters more than anything else in a book of this size: the characters are likable and I care about them.
How, specifically, do they pull that off…? Well, the pivot back to when these battle hardened mech suit pilots were little Ender Wiggin types has a lot to do with it. This brief exchange between the protagonist and his sister pulled me right in:
“Shut up, neuro-typical simpleton,” she said.
He laughed. “Don’t forget your dollies.”
Mara glared. “They’re Heroic Action Figures.”
“They’ll make one of me someday.”
“Your arrogance is exceeded only by your hubris.”
“Whatever. See you later.”
“Not if I see you first.”
That’s good dialog. The action that follows this scene is telegraphed to the reader quite plainly so it isn’t a surprise. The fact that the hints go right over the heads of these genetically enhanced children only makes the story that much more engaging there.
One thing that tends to be missed in these days where “bad guys” are just the victims of childhood trauma is that dislikable characters are just as important to the alchemy of storytelling as the likable ones. And the “brainiacs” are pitch perfect for that. It’s very difficult not to have an emotional reaction to them:
“Good thing my parents are dead.”
Derek stared at here. “Why is that a good thing?”
“I never liked them anyway.”
Loco and Derek exchanged glances. “She always was a loony,” Loco whispered.
“My hearing is excellent, and I’m not a loony,” Nancy said. “I’m a high-functioning sociopath. That means I can kill you and not feel any remorse.”
The dragon of anger inside Derek reared up, and his eyes bored into Nancy’s. “If you do, you better get us both, or you’ll die too. Or the Enforcers will get you. I’m a physical, remember? I can snap your neck before you even see it coming. I’m going to be a mechsuiter.”
“Yeah, me too,” Loco echoed.
Nancy looked away and shut up.
That’s good, Derek realized. If she’s afraid– if everyone was afraid– then I’m safer.
He felt slightly ashamed for bullying the rude girl until he remembered her threats. Was it bullying if you got bullied first, and you bullied back?
Look at that. There is the credible threat of damnation that Misha Burnett has written about– that critical element of the pulp ethos that is so often cast aside today. It happens very early on in the novel– and now that I think of it… this really is the exact moment where the reader bonds with the protagonist. Look at how much is in play there: an outright obnoxious person, a strong desire to stand up for close friends, a genuine concern that a reprisal went too far…. That is a potent brew. Very rich. And the girl’s subsequent correction at the hands of a Lakota from Old Earth is the icing on the cake.
I’m trying to think back to the last time I really saw this cadence of emotional beats. I can’t think of a whole lot of recent movies or television shows that really do this. Maybe it happens, I don’t know. I can tell you that it infuses nearly every chapter of works by guys like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see it here.
Why would something like that largely disappear from the shared storytelling vocabulary…? Well at some point, judging characters by the content of their character fell out fashion. New values that seemed like good things in and of themselves were actually in conflict with the old ones. Not of lot of people noticed the switch… but our brains sure did. Just as the most recent example, Jennifer Lawrence’s character in X-men Apocalypse is only heroic because half a dozen characters spend precious screen time gushing over how awesome she was in a totally different movie. The resulting film looks beautiful. But there’s no soul, no substance… and nothing to connect to.
It’s obvious in retrospect, but… as important as it is to get all the explosions and the action right, none of it can matter without the yin and yang of genuinely likable and unlikable characters. Starship Liberator nails it.